Australia and the new municipalism

Simon White | This article looks at new approaches to local government in supporting economic development.

Australia and the new municipalism

Beset by recent political and economic disruptions, many local governments in Europe and North America are adopting new approaches to governance and economic development. While Australia has a different model to local government, how can movements such as the ‘new municipalism’ and ‘community wealth building’ influence Australian local governments?

Australia has famously benefited from almost thirty consecutive years of economic growth, but the benefits of this growth have not been equally shared. Regional disparities vary enormously and many local economies fear being left behind. As the rural-urban divide expands, inequality continues in the metropolitan areas.

There are growing expectations on local governments in Australia to respond to these economic challenges and opportunities. Rather than rely on market forces and the largess of state and federal governments, local councils can take a proactive stance toward the local economy and provide local leadership and strategic direction.

New global trends in local government exemplify the challenges faced by local economies around the world. Often described as ‘new municipalism’ and ‘community wealth building’, these movements represent progressive local responses to austerity and the centralising tendencies of national government.

Two examples from Europe are worthy of attention.

Community wealth building in Preston

In the UK, community wealth building is often referred to as the ‘Preston Model’. Based on the experiences of the Preston City Council, these approaches describe how local councils and other ‘anchor institutions’, such as local colleges, universities, hospitals, police, and housing associations, can work in partnership to build the area’s capacity for development.

Rather than rely on market forces, these local actors collaborate to ‘take back control’, ensuring the benefits of local growth are invested in the local area and used to support productive economic activities.

The Preston City Council and other anchor institutions were able to redirect £1.2bn of their total annual spending toward local businesses. This led to increased local investment, employment and business growth. Preston City Council has since spent an additional £4m locally, lifting its local spend from 2012 to 2016 from 14 to 28 per cent of its annual budget.

New municipalism is based on the propensity for ‘deep and enduring place-based relationships that cannot occur at the national level’. It has been described as ‘a fightback against the extraction of wealth and power’, restoring the rights of towns, cities and the commons for all. It is a reaction to ‘traditional models of local economic development [that] are struggling to deliver social and economic outcomes that meet the needs of people and places.’

The Centre for Local Economic Strategies works in Preston and on community wealth building generally. It has identified lessons for local councils and other anchor institutions. These include:

  • Places and local authorities can benefit from external stimulus and vision from thought leading organisations;
  • Places need to understand the types of outcomes they want to achieve––creating a framework to operate in;
  • Places need to have the buy-in and vision of senior leadership within place;
  • Places need to understand the existing scale of activity––whether that be the impact of procurement spend, the impact of suppliers and business, and the scale and potential of initiatives;
  • Places need to have governance structures which include considerations around both strategy and delivery;
  • Places need to be reflective that different wealth building activities will work differently dependent on the place; and
  • Places need to continuously monitor the impact and behaviour change of community wealth building activities lead to and amend accordingly.

Fearless Barcelona

Another ‘progressive’ model for local government reform is found in Barcelona.

In June 2014, under the slogan, ‘Yes we can’ (Podemos), an organisational platform for a diverse range of people, groups and political parties was formed, known as Barcelona en Comú. This platform links networks of local assemblies allowing people to engage in local policy decisions that affect them.

Barcelona en Comú, describes its mandate as ‘winning back the city’: ‘putting a new, transparent and participatory model of local government, which is under citizen control, into practice’.

Ada Colau, the first female mayor of Barcelona has been leading the charge. Elected with support from Barcelona en Comú in 2015, she has ignited a new understanding of civic engagement and the pro-active role local governments can take to improve social and economic wellbeing.

Barcelonahas also been described a one of the world’s leading smart cities for its ability to draw on new digital technologies to better manage energy, transportation and services. Half of the city’s lighting is controlled remotely. LED streetlights fitted out with sensors switch on when they detect motion and dim when the streets are empty. The city has produced a number of apps to improve transport: ApparkB app provides drivers with real-time information on free car parking spots, while Bicing app gives updated information on the location of public bike stations. Smart technology is used to improve the speed and efficiency of the city’s new orthogonal bus network.

The Barcelona en Comúhas produced a guide to building a citizen municipal platform. The BenComú activists have also published a book, Fearless Cities, which draws wider lessons from these experiences, promoting a new model of progressive municipalism.

Emerging lessons for local government and other anchor institutions

Bertie Russell from the Urban Institute at the University of Sheffield offers lessons cities can learn from Barcelona en Comú: Cities should introduce participatory processes that let citizens set the policy agenda and should facilitate non-market, non-public sector initiatives, which he calls ‘urban commons’. He also recommends local governments revisit local public procurement policy to ensure all publicly procured work meets a series of progressive standards.

A recent report by Democracy Collaborative in the US, Anchor Collaboratives: Building Bridges with Place-Based Partnerships and Anchor Institutionsdiscusses the role of local anchor institutions. It shows how collaboration among anchor institutions can leverage the power of local economic assets to revitalise local communities.

It identifies eight principles of community wealth building:

  1. Labour matters more than capital;
  2. Local, broad-based ownership matters;
  3. Active democratic ownership and participation matter;
  4. Multipliers matter––when a purchase is made locally, that money stays in the community longer;
  5. Localising investment matters;
  6. Collaboration matters––building community wealth comes from building lasting relationships of mutual support;
  7. Place really matters; and
  8. Community wealth is where the next system begins.

What Australia can learn from the new municipalism

These new social movements have a clear political agenda. They search for better local solutions to the challenges created by increasing globalisation and centralised governments. They want to deepen democracy by strengthening local participation and decision making, and to build the capacity of local businesses to compete and employ.

Writing in The Conversation, Amanda Tattersall says ‘Barcelona provides inspiration for new political strategies in Australia’.

The best expression of community wealth building in Australia is found in the growth of place activation, placemaking and ‘town teams.’ For example, the Town Team Movement positions itself as an ‘under-arching’, non-profit organisation helping to create a network of town teams around Australia and New Zealand, promoting ‘civic leadership, active citizenship and community empowerment’.

Adrian Brown from the Centre for Public Impact in Australia describes how ‘the establishment’ is in freefall in many countries: ‘deference to hierarchy is being replaced by demands for more autonomy and self-determination’ and ‘localism is on the rise’. Young people no longer just want to be customers or consumers but instead, want to ‘be active participants able to shape services to their needs and play a part in their delivery.’

We need to be careful in some of these approaches, taking care not to fall into the ‘local trap’ in which anything local is treated as more authentic than democracy at other levels. But while this is a clear challenge, many local communities want to become more engaged in local decisions and to take part in efforts that improve the quality of life.

The 2017 Future of Local Government Summit in Victoria declared that it’s ‘time to explore a new model of governance, one based on a re-energised civil society that draws on the strength and resourcefulness of people working together in diverse local and regional communities – a localist response.’

Local governments and other ‘anchor institutions’ need to recognise the significance of these trends. They need to find ways to better interact with local actors of all ages and walks of life.

They also need to keep an eye on the national and global dynamics that shape the local economy. Governments must work with investors, business and educational institutions to craft a response that builds local resilience and capability, while improving competitiveness in world markets.